They arrived at the airport.

Everything was final. Goodbyes said, possessions sent off.

After clearing security, the Brophys skirted a corner into a wide hallway. The whole corridor smelled of carpet cleaner and greased escalator panels, marked off like a ruler with gate numbers and restrooms.

Her parents talked very little, and Heather busied herself with keeping up, contemplating the lingering grief for her old life and telling herself it would pass. She was relieved to finally just get the move over with.

She sleepily traced the garish pattern in the carpet as they advanced. The rumble of a jet taking off attracted her attention to the window spanning most of the far wall.

“By the way, Heather,” Richard said. “I invited another one of my colleagues to travel with us, so he’s on the same flight. Maybe you two will get to talk.” 

Heather snapped her head around to look at him. “What? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” She checked the elastic band haphazardly keeping her hair at bay. She hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. There were too many thoughts and anxieties running through her mind, crowded up against the edge of starting over.

“I didn’t want you to be nervous,” Richard said. “Oh, E17—this is us.” Heather trailed behind her parents into the hushed waiting area, glancing around for any overtly nerdy middle-aged men that seemed to recognize them. Richard caught the gaze of a young man in a hoodie and jeans, seated by the window with a black journal balanced on his knee. Richard waved. “And there he is.” 

The man lifted a hand in return and set his journal aside as they arrived. 

“Good morning,” Richard greeted him cheerily.

The colleague stood up. “Morning.” He nodded at Sue and Heather, seeming to spread the greeting to them too. “This must be your family?”

He was long-proportioned like a scarecrow, with wayward brown hair and dark circles under astute hazel eyes. Something about him seemed restless, an urgency of spirit barely controlled, loosely tethered under the surface. 

“Yes,” Richard said. “This is my partner, Sue, and my daughter, Heather.”

“Pleasure to meet you both,” the man said with a tired smile. He shook Sue’s hand, and then he was holding his hand out for Heather. She almost jumped as his eyes flicked to hers. “I’m James.”


Erika woke up in a tiny holding cell. She sat up with a groan, pivoting to plant her feet on the concrete floor and cradling her pounding head in her hands. She blinked, staring between her knees at socked feet.

“What…” She felt her pockets. All empty. Her bag and outer jacket were gone too.

A bandage hugged one finger that hadn’t been there before. Had they taken blood?

She stared at the blank white wall across the room, her heart starting to pound as the full realization of what had happened dawned on her. Where she was. 

“No…” she breathed. She brought her fists down on her knees with a harsh, hissed, “Shit!” 

She hoped against hope she was in jail. Prison would have been exponentially better than what she suspected. She felt her right ear, checking for the punched hole police gave captured political dissenters, but found it undamaged. 

She scrubbed her hands over her face, trying to get a hold of herself.

The door’s heavy lock clicked back. She stood up quickly, and almost lost her balance to dizziness. She ran a hand along her head. Her black locs were still tied back. Her limbs held.

A guard in a dark uniform entered the cell. 

“Turn around,” he said, pulling a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “Hands on the wall.”

Erika glanced passed him to the open door, blocked by the stony, warning face of another guard. She decided to comply. 

After restraining her, the guards took her out into a wide hallway lined with cell doors, down a corridor that looked more like a hospital than a prison, and into a room that held nothing but a table and two chairs. They sat her down in one of the chairs and fixed her restraints to it.

Silence reigned as she waited for something to happen, a tight knot in her stomach. One of the guards waited outside the door, while the other stood behind her chair, his presence oppressive.

Finally, the door opened. A man came in, unassuming and calm. He wore business attire, sporting a burgundy dress shirt, narrow, rectangular glasses, and professionally managed brown hair. His round jaw and even features afforded his face a docile, almost pleasant resting state.

Very quietly, he pulled out the chair opposite her, settled into it, and folded his hands on the table. Despite his thirty-something babyface, he had a perpetually tired look about him. 

Not much of a mad scientist vibe, Erika thought. He was probably some administrative assistant—maybe even the director’s main toady—strapped with gleaning information on the intruder first thing in the morning. A security camera hung from the opposite wall, pointed straight at her. His employer was probably watching.

“Well, Ms. Davenport,” Toady began. His voice was soft, easy to listen to. “Care to explain your presence here?”

Erika frowned at the table, refusing to answer. Her reflection stared back at her from the chrome surface, cold and washed out in the fluorescent lights. Her head was pounding so hard it hurt to keep her eyes open.

“Were you alone?”

Silence sat between them.

He sighed, picking a speck of lint off his black tie. “How is it that you had the coordinates to this facility?”

They’d obviously looked through her stuff. Her wallet, phone, GPS bearing the incriminating coordinates—She tried to remember if she had anything that would trace back to the Conxence. Everyone she knew in the resistance were listed under a personal cypher that revealed only part of their codename if translated. Hopefully that was buried enough.  

She cringed at the thought of one of Empetrum’s lackeys snooping through her phone. Or worse, the director themself.

“Should we be expecting anyone else to come knocking at our door?” Toady prodded.

“I got lost in the woods,” Erika said, her gaze steady and hard. “That’s all.”

He scoffed and adjusted his glasses. “You have absolutely nothing to gain by lying to me.”

“I have nothing to gain from this situation, period,” Erika said. They were probably going to get rid of her either way.

She felt unbelievably stupid. She should have been with her father and sister, not following a vendetta. She’d known this was not worth the risk, but she had been angry. The Conxence was an outlet. Empetrum a target.

And the house was so quiet these days, after her mother’s passing.

“I can’t promise anything,” Toady was saying. “Trespassers with ill intent are not taken kindly, though.”

Erika narrowed her eyes.

“You obviously have a pretty good idea of where you are. Who gave you our location? What did you hope to accomplish last night?” Toady watched her, closely. “Journalism? Conxence? Little far from the capital, aren’t we?”

Erika glared at him, her jaw set.

“I’d come clean, if I were you. And I’d choose my words carefully,” he spoke coolly, as if he were bored of the whole situation. “It’s really in your best interest.”

“You don’t scare me,” Erika said. “Who’s in charge of this place?” She looked into the security camera. “If your boss wants information, they’re gonna have to grill me personally.”

Toady cracked a thin, patient smile.

There came a buzzing from the pocket of his slacks, interrupting the tension in the air. He pulled out a slender, black cellphone and looked at it. His eyebrows raised.

“Oh. Your genetic profile has come out. Dr. Yeun wants to take you on.” He stood up. “So. Looks like you won’t be interrogated and mindwiped today, Ms. Davenport. Lucky you.”

Erika blinked. “What—?”

He addressed the guard on his way to the door, “Take her back to her cell. Have one prepared for long term holding, according to Yeun’s specifications, and transfer her to it when it’s ready.”

“Yes, Director,” the guard said.

Erika stiffened. She twisted around after him. “You’re the…”

The director paused at the door. He smiled. “Take it easy today. We have important work for you soon.” 

She stared at him, mouth hanging open.

Once the door had closed behind him, the guard proceeded to undo her restraints from the chair.



“Hello? Dad?” Thirteen-year-old James couldn’t believe his father had answered the phone.

The boy sat alone outside the back of his residence hall, his face hot and puffy from crying. Drawing his stretched, spindly legs up onto the bench, James pulled his sweatshirt up to his nose to ward off the nighttime chill.

“James? Do you have any idea what time it is?” Jonathan Siles’ voice was not magnanimous.

James shrank even further into his sweatshirt. “Sorry…”

“Is something wrong?”

James’ throat tightened again and he fought to choke back enough control of his voice to speak properly—as if it weren’t hard enough with the braces clogging his mouth. “Can you come get me?”

“Of course not,” his father said incredulously. “Why would you ask something like that?”

“I don’t like it here.”

“It’s only been a couple of weeks.”

“I don’t like it,” James insisted. “The classes are crazy. Everyone’s so much older and different. I think this was a mistake.” Tears began to spill down his face again, despite his best efforts to stop them. “I want to come home,” he squeaked. “Please, Dad, let me come home.”
“You’ll figure it out.”

“Can’t I come back and try private high school instead?” James said.

“No,” his dad barked in his ear, exasperated. “You’ve been taking college coursework for three years now! You’d be bored and stifled.”


“You got a perfect score on both the state assessment and the entrance exam. You’re going to throw all our progress away because you don’t fit in with your adult classmates?”

James rubbed the sleeve of his sweatshirt under his nose. “I—I don’t know.”

“You’re more qualified than any of them will ever be. We sent you to that school to get an education, to make something of yourself. Not to make friends.”


“Look, James, I know you’re overwhelmed right now, but give it time.”

James couldn’t answer for several long moments. He slumped against the back of the bench. “Okay.”

His parents knew best. James couldn’t waste his talents. He had to push himself far beyond anyone else. 

Anything less was mediocre.

Mediocrity wasn’t an option. Failure wasn’t an option. His stubborn instincts for capability and survival bloomed like a black hole behind his ribs. The tightness burned, and he embraced its life.

His parents knew best.


Richard’s daughter regarded him with interest. James studied her right back. He wasn’t in the mood.

Heather looked like her father, mostly. Curious brown eyes, springy dark hair, a softness of complexion from her mother. He’d seen photos of her before, of course. But when she shook his hand, the grip was welcoming and self-assured, and the sullen, sleepy grayness he’d caught on her face moments earlier vanished for a warm, easy smile. 

A person with a strong filter, he thought.

“James is another one of my coworkers,” Richard was saying. “He’s only been with us for a year officially, but it feels like he’s been with us much longer than that. He’s highly trained in both electrical and mechanical engineering, with a doctorate in robotics to top it off. And he’s only twenty years old!”

James managed a nervous laugh. “I should bring you to interviews, Richard.”

At least Richard hadn’t completely lost faith in him after what had happened to the old Larkspur facility. He suspected inviting him to travel with them was Richard’s way of trying to say there were no hard feelings.

“So you waited a while to move too?” Richard said.

“Yeah.” James rubbed the back of his neck. “Had some trouble getting a place.” Arranging housing long distance was a pain, and he had lost a lot of time trying unsuccessfully to identify the key to their old workplace’s demise.

“I see.” Richard readjusted the strap of his duffel bag. “All straightened out now?”

“Yes,” he tried to smile. “Thankfully.”

“Hey, you should come see the new house sometime,” Richard said. “We should have a barbecue or something with everyone.”

“Sure thing.” James wasn’t sure about it. Heather shot her dad an odd look.

“May we join you while we wait?”
“Of course,” James said, and returned to his chair.

Although he would have liked to resume the train of thought he was following in his journal, James made idle conversation with the Brophys until it came time to board the plane. Sue asked how he was, whether he’d sustained any injuries in the accident, how he was getting on replacing his equipment, how much data they had lost… He tried to be nonchalant in his answers, and avoid rehashing the frustrations of the fiasco. 

Not to mention she’d probably heard about his reluctance to leave the generator—how he’d almost gotten Richard blown up that night.

It occurred to him that Susan Brophy might not like him much. 

Heather played with her phone, pretending not to be listening as closely as he knew she was. He’d done the same in the presence of his own parents and their colleagues enough as a kid to recognize the hallmarks.

Finally, boarding began, and he was able to escape further interrogation. He took up position in line behind the Brophys. He checked and double-checked his pockets, making sure he had his carryon bag, while scraps of incomplete formulas and technical sketches nagged at his attention.

After finding his seat on the jet, James’ row failed to fill up with other passengers. He’d expected to be relegated to his narrow aisle seat, trying to keep his elbows and knees in check for six hours. He liked this better.

When it seemed he really would have the row to himself, he moved to the window seat. Stifling a yawn, he pulled out his journal to continue working.

“James,” Richard said from across the aisle. He had booked their tickets all together, and put everyone in the same row.

James leaned forward to see around a passenger loading their bag into the overhead bin.

Heather was trying to dissuade her father with wide, urgent eyes as he said, smiling, “Mind if Heather sits with you? She’d love to chat.” 

Dad…” Heather hissed. 

He kind of would mind, to be honest, but he flashed a good-humored smile. “Not at all.”

Heather looked at him, surprised. Richard slipped out of his seat to let her pass. He had to coax his daughter a little before she consented to swapping sides. She settled into the aisle seat on James’ side, face flushed and hugging her backpack close.

Richard laughed. “Come on, he doesn’t bite.” He smiled at James. “Do you?” 

James shrugged and closed his sketchbook, amused. 

“I’m sorry,” Heather said, voice lowered. She stowed her bag under the seat in front of her. “My dad…you know.”

“Yes,” James scoffed quietly. “I know your dad.” He stuck his mechanical pencil behind his ear.

She searched for something to talk about. James debated getting back to work, in the interim.

“What are you working on?” she asked finally.

James threw an inquiring glance at his boss, who nodded, before handing over his sketchbook. “Just bits and pieces of stuff I’ve been thinking about.”

Heather flipped through it. “Wow. Where did you learn to draw like this?”

“Practice? I don’t know.”

“You never took classes?”

“Not really,” he said. “But don’t ask me to draw anything non-mechanical. You’ll be disappointed.”

“That’s still awesome, though.” She handed it back to him. “Someday, I might be able to tell what all that stuff in there means.”

“Of course you could,” he said, idly ribbing the pages with his thumb. “It’s not all that difficult with some background.”

“Really?” She folded her hands in her lap. “Dad says you’re some kind of genius.”

James glanced out the window. “So I’m told…” he muttered.

The term had always seemed sour to him. James. That kid. The prodigy. Who beautifully understood facts and concepts and data, but not much of interpersonal importance beyond professional relationships. Prodigies had to be stimulated, after all. Honed, trained, pushed too far—because he couldn’t let his gift go to waste. As if he were some secret weapon.

Like the fate of humanity somehow rested on his constricted shoulders.

“Where are you from?” Heather asked. 

“Northwest,” he said. “Rothspeak, if you know where that is.”

“That’s sort of where we’re going, right?”

“Yeah, sort of,” he said.

He had enjoyed living in the east. The location of the recently deceased Larkspur facility had been fairly close to a university town out in the countryside. It was an hour from a major metropolitan center, but he hadn’t often found it necessary to go to the latter. His days had been filled with nice air and engineering, and that had suited him just fine.  

Much nicer than his parents’ apartment on the west coast where they were headed now, stacked in a frantic suburb north of the capital. Living on his own, far away from them and their dictatorship was the best part of the arrangement. 

“So you have family over there?” Heather was saying.

“Yeah, my parents.”

“Do you get to see them very much?”

“Not really.”

“It’s nice you’ll be closer then, so visiting them will be easier. Do you miss them?”

James hesitated. He fidgeted with his notebook. “We don’t really get along that well.” 

“Oh,” Heather said, realizing her mistake. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No—no, it’s fine,” he responded quickly. He tried to smile. “Please, don’t worry about it. It’s not that bad.”

Heather fell silent and watched the activities of passengers settling in several rows up, unsure of how to proceed. “So—uh, how did you become an engineer so young? I thought that kind of thing took forever. I bet there was a lot of college in there somewhere.”

James inhaled slowly, searching for a way to be unassuming about it. “I started really early, taking on the most challenging course material I could handle for as long as I can remember. My dad’s a neuroscientist and my mom’s a mathematician, so I guess I was kind of meant for it since the beginning. By the time I was ten, I was taking college courses online, and I’ve always been interested in robotics, so I often studied it for fun.” 

He was lucky, he supposed. If he hadn’t already had an obsession of his own, it would have been easier for his father to steer him into neurobiology. Not that his dad hadn’t tried. James probably knew enough to have an unofficial degree in it by now.

“You were homeschooled, then?”

He nodded. “Very homeschooled,” he said. “Then I went to college at thirteen and kept up with the program from there.”

Heather blinked. “Wow. Did you like it?”

“Uh, yeah…” He pushed up the sleeves of his sweatshirt. “Not amazingly recommended, though. University isn’t just academics. Going through puberty among twenty-somethings was—jarring.”

Heather winced. “Why did you decide to start so early, if it was that rough?”

“I was already near that level academically, so it seemed like a logical next step,” James replied. “I needed the social experience, anyway.” And it had been his parents’ decision, not his.

“Are you glad you did it?”

He looked at her, and he wasn’t sure what to make of those earnest brown eyes. He paused, weighing the question. “Yeah, I suppose I am. I don’t think I’d have wanted to wait.”

“Are you happy at Larkspur, working with my dad and the others?”

A smile came much more naturally than the previous ones. “I am.” Larkspur was home to him. Being so near to settling into the lab and working again filled him with a longing evoked by nothing else.

“So, Dad said you have a doctorate in robotics?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s your last name?”


“So I could call you ‘Dr. Siles,’ then.”

“You could, I guess.” James thought the name made him sound old and stuffy. He had frequently heard the title used for his father, who had a couple of doctorates himself. “It would be inefficient, though. ‘James’ is only one syllable.”
Heather snorted, surprising him.

“What?” he said.

“It would be,” she laughed. “Inefficient.”

James smiled, despite himself.  


Erika was surprised to find her bag sitting on the wire-frame bed of her “long term holding” cell. The guard removed her restraints and left her alone.

She lurched to the bed. She unzipped her bag and shook it upside down to take inventory.

Journal, pencil stub, chapstick, granola bars, extra socks, sunglasses, wet wipes, map.

Of course, they’d taken the important stuff. Missing items included her cell phone, portable charger, GPS, pocketknife, wallet, water bottle…

She stared at the meager, scattered remains of her supplies, her face cold. She twisted around, observing the cell.

It was a strange one. On the wall adjacent to the door hung a small, empty shelf. The bed was near the door, and a pane of thick, semitransparent polymer partitioned a shower and bathroom area off from the rest of the cell. Near the divider crouched a sink, complete with a dull mirror—also some kind of plastic, she guessed—and a small cupboard beneath, in which she found basic hygiene supplies. Nothing controversial though. No razors or ibuprofen or anything like that. 

Off the front of the bed sat another plastic bi-level shelf, the top of which held an extra blanket, pillow, and a white towel—all of which smelled freshly washed.  

A small black orb hung from the middle of the ceiling. She wondered if its view reached into the bathroom area. She stared up at it and leaned back, calculating the angle. 

Mostly, she guessed.

What sort of prisoner’s quarters was this, anyway? She had thought she was being punished.

She was pacing the concrete floor when the door opened.

Erika backed away, scrambling to figure out how she would respond. For a few crazy moments, she considered fighting her way through and seeing how far she could get before she was tranquilized again. Or worse.

A man with a friendly face and short spiked hair entered the room with a guard. He held a tray with a bagel, scrambled eggs, and a cup of coffee, judging by the aroma. He smiled. “Hello, Ms. Davenport.”

The guard shut the door behind them and positioned himself in front of it, thick arms folded. 

Erika kept her distance.

“Brought you some food,” the man bobbed the tray before setting it on the empty shelf by the door. “My name is Elias Yeun.” He looked to be early thirties, like the director. Average height, pudgy, broad face. Well kept and upbeat. In any other situation, he’d have been the least threatening person in the room.

For some reason, she had expected Dr. Yeun to be a crusty old man. Putting this face to the name didn’t make her feel any better.

“Who are you?” Erika said warily. “What do you do?”

“I’m a biochemical engineer,” Yeun said.

“I’m told you want my DNA.”

“In a way. I still have a lot of analysis to finish up before we can begin. But from what I can tell so far, you’re a great candidate for this project. Nice long telomeres, healthy BRCA1 and 2, no Li-Fraumeni Syndrome—Of course I’ll have to do more digging into your epigenetic signature before we start, to get a better feel for what we’re dealing with.”

“What project?” Erika said.

“We’ll get to that later.” He gestured to the food. “For now, rest, relax. Let the rest of the tranquilizer work its way out of your system. You’ll be here for a while.”

“No,” Erika insisted. “You need to let me go. I can’t be here. I have to go home. My family will think I got lost in the woods. They’ll think I’m dead.”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Davenport,” Yeun said. “You can’t have any contact with the outside world right now—”

“But they’ll look for me!” she cried. “We’ve already been through so much. I can’t do this to them—”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, gently. “In time, if all goes well, you will be reunited with your family. But we have work to do in the meantime.”

“No,” Erika said, firmly. Her hands clenched into fists at her sides. “I will not give my consent. As a medical institution, you are legally obligated to honor that. Let me go.”

“I’m sorry, but those rules don’t apply here,” Yeun said. “Please, I’ve been stuck dealing with experimental groups at the prisons that just aren’t responding to treatment. If your system doesn’t respond either, I’ll have you sent to be mindwiped and we’ll let you go. How’s that?”

“I don’t see how that’s any better.” 

“Don’t worry,” Yeun said. “Mindwipes don’t have to be total. They’re not too exact either, but I’ve done enough of them that I’m pretty good at getting close. You just lose the days that have anything to do with Empetrum. You fall asleep, we drop you off at a local hospital, you wake up, and find your way home.” He splayed his fingers like small fireworks. “Voilà.” 

“And the medical problems your tests bring about,” Erika said, fixing him with a weary glare. “They’ll kill me later or what? Best case scenario, I spend the rest of my life with unexplained scars and dysfunction? You can’t make me do this.”

Yeun looked apologetic. “We can. It’s really in your best interest to go along with it, since you don’t have any other options at this point. The best I can offer is wiggle room.”

Erika’s eyes narrowed. “How do you mean?” 

“If you cooperate,” Yeun said. “You’ll be kept informed of the entirety of the procedure. You’ll be allowed anesthesia when necessary, if we get to a stage that requires it. Privacy, comfort, three square meals a day plus snack privileges. You can request reading material or other activities to keep yourself occupied in the off hours. You may even be allowed time outside with supervision, if the weather’s nice.”

Erika stared at him, disgusted and confused.

“But if you fight it,” he gestured at the frosted pane at the back of the cell, “this all goes away. You become a test subject only. Your days will be filled with boredom, isolation, invasion, and pain. Two very different roads to the exact same outcome.”

“And what outcome would that be?” Erika clenched her jaw to keep it from trembling.

“A good one, I hope.”

“Nothing good could come of this place.” 

“Well, I admit I’m hoping for a positive outcome for both of us. But you’ll be out of here sooner if it doesn’t work,” Yeun said. “This project, you see, it’s not really an ‘all or nothing’ deal like some of the other projects here. It’s slow, gradual. There are milestones. But if your body rejects them, I’ll know right away, and we’ll stop treatment before anything really happens. Your system will remain normal, but will be considered compromised and, therefore, unusable for other experiments, so we’d send you on your way. Just like that.”

“What is the treatment for?” Erika said, warily.

“You have to agree to help me first,” Yeun said.

“As if I would,” she snapped. “You can’t offer me my right to myself as a privilege. You’re all just a bunch of monsters pretending to be people.”

Desperate emotion welled up in her throat but she bit it back. She was afraid now, and angry. She hated this place, these people. She hated herself for getting mixed up in it. This amiable sunflower man, pretending to be on her side, asking her to submit herself to his will. She hated him too.

“You’re all selfish, toxic, and cruel, and you can act as nice as you want,” she found herself shouting without having made up her mind to do so, “but you’re gonna have to show yourself for what you are because I’m gonna fight you every step of the way!”

Yeun’s hopeful face clouded with disappointment. “I think you’ll find it’s not a matter of mere comfort, Ms. Davenport. But of survival. A little hurt pride—”

“In exchange for utter violation,” she spat. “I don’t assume you’d choose it either, if we switched places.”

His lips tightened. He sighed through his nose and glanced at the ground, thinking. 

As silence opened up between them, she waited for his amicable facade to melt from his features like candle wax. It would have made it easier, in a way.

“Well,” he said, looking up. He took a step back to go. “I’ll treat you with as much care as I’m allowed, under the circumstances. You can reconsider at any time. I won’t rub it in.”

Erika glared at him, considering taking a swing at his face.

Yeun gestured at the tray near the door. “Don’t let your food get cold. Enjoy the rest of your day. I’ll come back this evening with some questions, after you’ve had some time to think all this over. I know it’s a lot to take in.”

Erika sat down heavily on the bed as Yeun and the guard left. The door closed and locked, and she breathed a shuddering sigh, cradling her face in her hands. Tears welled up in her eyes and she ducked her head as the full weight of this colossal mistake crashed in around her. 

Erika Davenport would become a face on a missing poster. The Conxence, suspecting of her location, would be unable to act. Her father and sister, already deep in grief from the recent passing of her mother, would be forced to grieve for yet another loved one. Or at least worry, if the Conxence reached out to them with their inevitable suspicions. They had better reach out, she thought.

Until she survived and came home, at least. Somehow.

She resolved to survive.


After the safety demonstration, the breathy, high-pitched whine of the jet’s engines became more fervent, filling Heather with giddy expectation. She hadn’t been on a plane in ages, and she looked past James out the oblong window on his left as the aircraft taxied to the runway.

“So what about you?” his voice broke her distraction.

Heather startled. “Me?” 

He nodded

She hesitated. He was just being polite.

At her silence, he said, “So, you’re in high school, right? Freshman? Sophomore…?”

“Sophomore.” Heather’s face heated with a sharp stab of self-consciousness. “Or—I’m gonna be, in the fall.”

“How did your finals go?”

She shrugged. “Fine. My parents said I can try private school this year.”

“And how do you feel about that?” he said, curiosity tinging his calculated gaze.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she replied. “I think. I hope I can make friends.”

“You will,” he said with a reserved smile.

Heather sighed. “I don’t know. I didn’t really fit in at my old school.”

She chided herself on telling him this. They were only five years apart, but he was an engineer with a doctorate. He wouldn’t care about teenager stuff.

“I find that hard to believe,” James said.

She looked at him, surprised. “You do?”

“Yeah. You seem nice.”

“They all thought I was a teacher’s pet.” Heather thrived in academic settings, and was able to learn and apply information quickly, so people came to her with homework questions, but kept their distance otherwise. “An overachiever, through and through.”

They also didn’t understand what was so great about obscure scientific facts far beyond the curriculum level, which was endlessly thwarting. James could probably relate. She wished she could have gone to school with people like him and Eve and her dad. 

“But are you an overachiever?” James said.

“Well, yeah.”

James scoffed. “No shame in that.” He fidgeted with the drawstrings in his sweatshirt, making sure they were even. “If you like learning, that’s an asset. Private school sounds like a good move for you. I think you’ll be happier in that environment.”


James nodded.

She really hoped she wasn’t annoying him. She had already hit a sore spot, making assumptions about his relationship with his parents. Now she was venting at him, but it was hard not to. She felt like she couldn’t talk to anyone about this. Her parents wanted to support her, but they were biased. No one else could know the details of why they were relocating, and she was tired of feeling so stuck in her own head.

“Thanks.” Heather willed her face to stop feeling so warm. “It’s been hard, moving.”

“Yeah,” James sighed. “This whole thing has been a pain.”

“And my parents keep treating me like I’m too young to handle anything about Larkspur,” she said. “It makes me think maybe as soon as we get settled, they’ll try to make me forget all about it.”

James blinked. “Your dad encouraged us to chat, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, and I even met Eve a week ago,” she crossed her arms. “I don’t really get it.”

“Sounds like he wants to include you.” James idly scratched the edge of his jaw. “We just have to be careful who we tell what. NDA’s, you know.”


“Non-disclosure agreement,” he said. “A ‘don’t tell people stuff’ contract. Until recently, Larkspur’s been buried under a lot of them.” 

Heather perked up. “Until recently?” 

James’ shoulders tightened and he glanced at Richard, who was eavesdropping. Heather was careful not to look his way. She hoped he hadn’t heard what she’d just confided in his young colleague.

“I…shouldn’t be the one talking about this,” James laughed nervously. “You should ask your dad.”

“Oh.” Heather’s hopes faded. “Okay.”

“So, uh, what’s your favorite subject in school?” he asked.

“Science,” she replied, deciding to have mercy on him and allow the subject change.

He nodded, thoughtfully. “Appropriate. Which one?”

“I don’t know. I’ve only taken biology so far. My old school was slow that way, I guess.”

James shrugged, in a way an old man might before advising her to enjoy her youth while it lasted.

“I do like biology though,” she said. “It’s cool. I like to get books about cell bio and stuff at the library. I could just sit there for hours, exploring the science section.”

“I loved doing that when I was a kid.” James smiled, and Heather was startled by the sudden informality. “Those were the days.”

Her heart beat a little faster. She’d never met anyone remotely close to her age who related to her like that. 

“What about you?” she said. “Robotics is your favorite, right?”

“Yeah. I like the challenge of it,” he said. “Tinkering with things, finding out what’s possible. I think it would be fun to combine biology and robotics someday. I have all this neurobiology stuff from my dad’s work just sitting in my brain. Maybe it could combine well for prosthesis research, you think?”

“You’d be good at that,” Heather said. “Is Larkspur heading that direction at all?”

“Not that I know of,” he said.

Not that he’d be able to tell her if they were, she thought. Drat those NDA’s. 

Their conversation took a short hiatus while the plane sped up along the runway and lifted into the air. As the jet climbed higher and higher into the sky, Heather stared rapturously out the nearby window—as best as she could, anyway.

“Do you want to switch spots when we level out?” James ventured. The calculated politeness was back in his voice.

“That’s okay,” Heather said. Truth be told, she would have loved to be by the window, but she could tell James enjoyed the view too. He had prior claim anyway.

He watched the sea of clouds below, and Heather studied him for a moment. Now that she knew his cool-headed manner of conversation was a front, she watched for its weak points, as if for visible entities. She wanted to see what the real James looked like. What sort of people were the Larkspur engineers really? Paying close attention to his reaction, she said, “Speaking of cell biology, did you know there’s a protein in the mitochondria that triggers the programmed cell death response if it gets out into the cytoplasm?”

James turned his head to look at her, his eyebrows raised. “You know, I think I’ve heard that somewhere.” His face brightened as he considered the information. He looked out the window again with a smile. “Fascinating.”

“So you learned all the biology stuff from your dad?” she said.

James nodded. “He was not-so-privately hoping I’d make it a career someday. When I built cars with plastic bricks, he tried to get me to map neuronal pathways.”

“You liked those toys when you were a kid?”

“I had a preoccupation with the things.”
“What sort of stuff did you build, besides neurons and cars?”
“Airplanes, robots, stuff like that,” he said. “The more movable pieces, the better.”

“I used to like building towers,” Heather mused. “I tried to get them as high as possible, and I kept getting caught standing on the table to do it.”

“My parents would have killed me if I did that,” James said.


“I like to think so.”

“Do you have brothers or sisters?” Heather said.

He shook his head. “No, just me.”

“Same,” Heather sighed. “I always kinda wished I had siblings. Would be nice to have someone to do stuff with, you know?”

“You don’t have friends to do stuff with?” James said.

Heather looked at her fingers laced together in her lap and shrugged.

“Oh—sorry,” he tried, realizing his mistake. They were on a plane, headed clear across the country. Any friends Heather had, she was leaving behind. “I’m sorry, I completely wasn’t thinking. That was really insensitive—”

Heather began to laugh, and his attempts to apologize faded in confusion.

“Guess that makes us even, huh?” she chuckled.

James blinked, his expression a blank question.

“We both managed to find a sore spot in under an hour,” she said. “Must be talent.”

James smiled ruefully. His face reddened, something Heather wasn’t expecting.

She took a breath and tucked an errant curl behind her ear. “At any rate, I’m hoping this can be a new beginning. I finally know about Larkspur. I’m switching to private school. I think things are gonna be good.”

James nodded. “They will be.”

She offered a grateful smile. She could feel an awkward silence imminent and refused to let it have the last word. She reached for her backpack and pulled out her earbuds and a novel. “I should let you get back to what you were working on. Can’t be a chatterbox the whole flight, can I?”

“You’re fine,” James said. Nevertheless, he opened his sketchbook to a half-finished page, and when she neglected to strike up more conversation, he pulled the pencil from behind his ear and set it to the paper.

Heather watched him from the corner of her eye.

James worked tirelessly, instantly absorbed in his equations and diagrams. Every now and then, he paused gazed out the window, thinking, then continued writing with renewed inspiration. Heather wondered how long he could keep that up. Once he got started, she was afraid to disturb him.



The west coast had a ridiculous amount of trees. Worthing rose high above the surrounding landscape, a winding metropolis of skyscrapers butted up against old brick buildings, widespread artistic influence, and every block covered in landscaping. Heather almost wished their new home was closer to the city. 

Instead, they were going to live out in the country, which Richard told Heather was actually closer to the facility than downtown Worthing. She liked the idea of quiet, but maybe not that much quiet.

Ten minutes outside Knights Bridge, the small town with which their new postal address was affiliated, they turned off the narrow road to a winding gravel driveway.

Before Richard had a chance to kill the engine, Heather had already stepped out to take in her first impression of their new house. New to her, at least. Moss spattered the gray roof, the newly painted white paneling a checkerboard of older and newer wood, and the porch boards uneven. It certainly had more character than their previous house deep in suburbia, which had been much newer, and had resembled a lot of the neighbors’.

She mindfully ventured up the steps to the front door, as if the house itself were alive and her first movements toward it were her formal introduction. As her parents emerged from the rental car, Heather explored the porch, leaning over the side railing to peer into the backyard of unkempt green grass and apple trees.

As soon as Richard unlocked the front door, Heather was inside—inhibitions about liking the new arrangement waning as the odors of wood and dust filled her nose. Across the room, she spotted long curtains covering what must have been a sliding glass door in the empty kitchen. Treading past a wooden staircase to her right and a hallway further in on her left, she pulled on one of the heavy curtains. Light spilled into the house, riding on swirling eddies of dust.

“What do you think?” Richard called after her.

She turned a smile on her parents. “It’s larger than I thought it’d be.” Crossing the kitchen, she swung around the corner into the hallway and disappeared into the shadows, poking her head into each of the rooms.

She found the master bedroom upstairs, but passed it by. After a short assessment of her more likely bedroom options upstairs, she chose one at the end of the hallway, a room with soft carpet and a large window overlooking the tops of the fruit trees out back.

Heather trotted back down the wooden stairs to locate her parents, who were being much more methodical in their perusal.

“Ready to start bringing stuff inside?” Richard asked, opening one of the wooden cabinets over the counter and investigating its interior.

Heather tipped her head back in displeasure.“Sure.” She’d have liked at least more than five minutes’ break before continuing the moving slog. “If I settle down now, I won’t get up again.”

“And there’s only blank floor to settle on at the moment,” her mom agreed with a smile as Heather dropped her bag in a corner of the kitchen and followed them outside. “I want to at least get beds and a sofa in here before we crash.”


Later that evening, Richard brought back takeout from town, and they sat outside on the porch enjoying the aging heat of the day. The sunset cast yellow light on the empty transportation pod stationed along the side of their driveway.

The west coast time difference had made the day feel eternal.

Heather sighed and lay back, staring up at an abandoned mud wasp nest under the eaves. “Hey, Dad?”

“What would you say if I asked to visit Larkspur?”

“That would depend on whether you were actually asking,” he said, his voice soft and disarming.

She docked her hands behind her head. “I am.”

He regarded her for a moment, then removed his glasses to examine them. “I’d have to talk to Eve about it.”

“Oh. Well, could you?”

He nodded slowly, thinking as he cleaned the repaired lenses with the edge of his shirt.

“It’s cool that I can know the gist of Larkspur and all, but is that it?” Heather asked, glancing at him. He was looking off into the yard. “Am I really not allowed to know any details of what you do? James said some NDAs were lifting.”

“Yeah, I heard him say that,” Richard sighed. “But that doesn’t mean what you think it means. We haven’t had a visitor in a while.”

“So you do allow visitors then?”

“Not since James came to check out the facility prior to confirming his internship. That was a couple years ago.”

“It sounds like you’re overdue for another outsider.” Heather smiled, hopefully. “It’s okay if you can’t tell me about Larkspur’s past, but can’t I at least know about its present? There’s nothing sketchy about it that, right? It’s just secretive because the government’s involved?”

“I guess so,” Richard mumbled. “Tell you what, I’ll think it through, talk about it with some people, and see what I can do. Sound fair?”

“Thanks, Dad.” His tone didn’t inspire confidence, but at least she had made the first step.

Richard had been sending mixed messages, offering only ambiguous information about Larkspur, yet allowing her to meet two of his colleagues. Heather wanted to tease out the promising thread. Maybe someday he’d trust her enough.

This was her new reality. 

She was determined to explore it for all it was worth.


As promised, Dr. Yeun came back that evening with a clipboard. A digital clock hung high above the door, out of Erika’s reach, which she had been more or less watching for something to do.

“Good evening, Ms. Davenport,” he said, smiling as if he had no recollection of how their earlier conversation had gone. “Are you ready for questions?”

Erika remained seated on the bed, staring at him. “You gonna ask my favorite color or what?”

“Let’s start with ‘How old are you?’” he said, smiling nicely, but she noted tense shoulders. He was bracing himself.


Erika blinked. “Sixty-five.” 

He smiled and wrote something down. He probably already knew it from the driver’s license in her confiscated belongings. “Any allergies?”


He scoffed, and seemed genuinely amused.

Erika scooted back to lean against the wall. “So what’s the deal with the director?”

“What about him?”

“He doesn’t look the part.”

“What were you expecting?” Yeun cracked a sideways smile. “We’re getting off topic. Do you smoke or drink alcohol regularly?”

“All of the above,” Erika said, settling in, her nose in the air. “Drugs too. Love them hallucinogens and—amphetamines and whatever. Beta amyloids…”

“I’ll take that as a soft no,” Yeun was writing. “Beta amyloids, huh? Where are you picking up neural pathophys. terms? Are you a university student?”

Erika shrugged. “Well not anymore, am I?” She had been out of undergrad for a few years, working the front desk at a local pediatric clinic, but she wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m supposed to be your lab rat, remember?”
“If you want to call it that,” he sighed. “Do you have any conditions that require hormone supplements?”

“Didn’t you get all the information you needed from my blood?”

“It’s faster this way. The director has me working around the clock to get this trial set up, and I’d rather not drag anything out any longer than necessary,” his polite, dusty voice was growing slightly exasperated. “And you want to go home as soon as possible, don’t you?”

Erika frowned at her knees. “Yes.”

“So?” Yeun said. 

“No,” Erika replied, darkly. “No hormone supplements.”

Yeun wrote it down. “Thank you.” He docked his clipboard under his arm. “That’s all the questions for now. Did you decide on whether you’d help out graciously?”

“Sell my soul, you mean.”

“We don’t require your soul.”

Erika glared at the frosted polymer at the back of her cell, considering the drawbacks of her so-called privileges being rescinded. The inevitability of it all.

“I don’t have a choice, do I?”

“I’ll be honest,” Yeun replied. “You don’t. But your stay will be nicer this way.”

A long silence followed.

“Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll cooperate.”

Erika was disgusted with herself, but she needed to survive. She was already steeped in grief. There was no sense in compromising her psyche and morale even more by making things unnecessarily hard for herself.

She’d gotten herself into this, and she’d get herself out. By seeing it through or, better, trying to figure out how to escape somewhere in the middle once Yeun trusted her enough to start cutting corners with security protocols.

“Thank you,” Yeun said, and he actually seemed relieved.

“Now can you leave?” Erika said. “I want to be alone.”

“Of course. Can I get you anything?”


“Okay.” He took a step toward the door. “Enjoy the rest of your evening. I’m really glad you’re starting to see things our way.”


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